Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

John 3.13-17

Holy Cross (September 14) - Years ABC
1st Sunday after Pentecost

Other texts:

First, a brief history of this festival from the Manual on the Liturgy.

The celebration of this day dates from the dedication, in 335, of a basilica built by Constantine in Jerusalem. The day became very popular, being observed in both East and West. It remained on many Lutheran calendars and is a popular title for Lutheran churches. Since Holy Cross Day comes near the beginning of the academic year, it presents the opportunity for relating schools and colleges to the cross of Christ. In the Roman calendar this day is called the Triumph of the Cross.

Secondly, the assigned text: John 3:13-17 should not be studied separately from vv. 1-21. They are all part of one scene within the gospel. In spite of this, the text is divided up three different ways in the RCL with portions of John 3:1-21 assigned to four different festivals -- three of which we will have this year:

One way these verses are connected is the double "We know," uttered by Zachaeus in v. 2 and by Jesus in v. 11. "We," indicates that both are representing groups -- perhaps the distinction between thinking that Jesus is a "teacher who has come from God" and Jesus as the one who has "descended from heaven," who will be "lifted up," and through believing him one has eternal life.


One of the themes of John is one's origins. This is the question Pilate asks Jesus in 19:9: "Where do you come from?" The "origins" of Jesus is a theme throughout the gospel. From chapter 1, we, the readers know that Jesus -- the Word -- was with God and was God. Jesus came from God. That is the true confession of faith for John. In contrast, we have Nathanael stating, "From [ek] Nazareth, is anything good able to come?" Three other times questions about Jesus' place of origin are asked: 7:27-28; 8:14; and 9:29-30 (all using pothen).

The second time Nicodemus appears (7:50), this issue is raised by others, "Search and you will see that from [ek] Galilee a prophet does not arise" (7:52).

Where does Jesus come from? In this verse, he has descended from heaven. This word katabaino is repeated frequently in chapter in reference to Jesus and/or the bread that has come down from heaven (vv. 30, 38, 41, 42, 50, 51, 58). To throw in a sacramental theme, where does the sacramental bread come from? It comes from the store -- like Jesus came from Nazareth; but for those with eyes of faith, the bread and Jesus have come from God with salvific properties.

Where is Jesus going? He is to ascend to heaven. The only other times this word (anabaino) is used with this sense is in 6:62 and 20:17. The first reference is the uncompleted sentence, "Therefore if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before ...." What if we were to see that happening?

As far as the fourth gospel is concerned, the believers to do not "see" Jesus ascend. We are told -- as the risen Jesus speaks to Mary: "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’" (20:17)

Jesus came from his Father and returns to God. For John, that is a core concept of believing in Jesus (see also 13:3).


Just as this chapter has double meanings for anothen = "from above/again" (vv. 3, 7), and for pneuma = "wind/spirit" (vv. 5-6, 8) so there is with hypsoo = "lift up/exalt" (v. 14). We need to hold both meanings together simultaneously. The lifting up of Jesus on the cross is also his exaltation!

Using the analogy from Numbers 21:9 about solutions to a problem, we have this scheme:


Numbers 21:9 serpent on pole serpents on the ground

John 3:14-15 human on a pole (humans on the ground?)

If the solution in Numbers was a snake raised up on a pole -- because the problem was poisonous serpents on the ground; so in John if the solution is a human (the Word made flesh) on a pole, the problem must be the humans on the ground. Our problem is that we are human, so a human-being had to be lifted up on the pole (and Christ's divinity makes the effect last for eternity), so that we might look at him and live -- as the ancient Israelites look to the serpent on the pole and were cured from their poisonous bites.

Lucy once said to Charlie Brown, "Discouraged again, eh, Charlie Brown?" "You know what your whole trouble is? The whole trouble with you is that you're you!"

Charlie asks, "Well, what in the world can I do about that?"

Lucy answers, "I don't pretend to be able to give advice...I merely point out the trouble!"

The symbol of Jesus on a pole indicates that the problem with us is us -- and that Jesus is the solution. However, another conversation between Lucy and Charlie Brown indicates another part of the problem/solution.

Lucy speaks, "You know what the whole trouble with you is, Charlie Brown?"

Charlie answers, "No, and I don't want to know! Leave me alone!" He walks away.

Lucy shouts after him, "The whole trouble with you is you won't listen to what the whole trouble with you is!"

The solution begins with listening. If "you" are the problem, "you" can't be the solution. The solution has to come from outside yourself.


Often, rather than admitting, "I am the problem," we are more likely to confess that a few bad deeds are the problem: "I've lied, so I'd better stop lying." "I stole a comic book and I'd better stop doing that." "I was driving to fast and I'll try to keep my speed down." Whenever the problem is defined as doing something bad, the solution is simply to stop doing that bad deed -- or start doing good deeds. Salvation becomes nothing more than doing good things and avoiding the bad. Such a solution doesn't need Jesus -- or Jesus simply becomes a model of doing the right things. This watered-down, cheap salvation comes about when we don't see that we are the problem. The problem is not the things we do; but that we are us -- sinful human beings.

In Numbers, we aren't told if the poisonous serpents disappear, only that God provided a way for those who had been bitten by the serpents to live.

By analogy, Jesus being lifted up/exalted on a cross, doesn't take away our human sinfulness, but through him God provides a way for those "bitten" by sin to live eternally.

BELIEVING (vv. 15-16)

The verb pisteuo = "to believe, to trust" occurs seven times in 3:1-21. Five of those are present tense (vv. 12, 15, 16, 18, 18); once is future (v. 12), and once is perfect (v. 18), which implies a past action that continues into the present.

In Greek, the present tense denotes continual action, e.g., "keep on believing," "continue to believe." Believing is not like a hoop that one jumps through and gets to the other side; but more like entering a long journey through a tunnel.

Believing is related to one's relationship to what has been said (see 3:12). We can either believe that the words are true or not believe them -- in essence calling the speaker a liar.

Believing results in

Although the NRSV uses the word "condemn," the Greek krino started with the basic meaning of "to separate, divide;" then "to pick out, choose, decide;" then "to judge" (both favorable and negatively -- i.e., "to critique"); and it can mean "to judge negatively" -- i.e., "to condemn."

There is a "separation," but it is created by believing or not believing. I think this may be similar to the process of removing inactive members. The church council who is given the task of removing the members is simply being honest with the truth. The truth is, those members have "separated" themselves from "active" membership by their actions -- or better, their non-actions.

Although I don't think that it is as true as it used to be, nearly 20 years ago a group of pastors had a conversation about church with four young adults (early 20's) who were going through alcohol rehab. Every one of these young adults had experienced the church as a place of judgment. The felt the judgment through looks and/or comments that people didn't like the length of their hair or the style of clothing they were wearing. Congregations can be very judgmental institutions -- which according to this text, is not Jesus' job -- nor should it be ours.

Says one: "Ouch! One of those poisonous serpents just bit me."

Says a judger: "How could you be so stupid to let one of those serpents bite you?"

Says a savior: "Let me help you look at the bronze serpent on the pole."

ETERNAL LIFE (vv. 15-16)

John 3:15 is the first time "eternal life" is used in the gospel. Every time the phrase is used in John, it is with a present tense verb -- usually "have". It is something believers have now, and perhaps should be translated "unending life". It begins now and lasts forever. Just what is "eternal life"? O'Day (John, New Interpreter's Bible) writes:

"Eternal life" is one of the dominant metaphors in the Fourth Gospel to describe the change in human existence wrought by faith in Jesus (e.g., 3:36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:27; 17:4). To have eternal life is to live life no longer defined by blood or by the will of the flesh or by human will, but by God (cf. 1:13). "Eternal" does not mean mere endless duration of human existence, but is a way of describing life as lived in the unending presence of God. To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God. To speak of the newness available to the believer as "eternal life" shifts eschatological expectations to the present. Eternal life is not something held in abeyance until the believer's future, but begins in the believer's present (p. 552).

THE WORLD (kosmos) (v. 16)

This word in John often refers to the "people associated with a world system and estranged from God" (Lowe & Nida).

I think that Paul says much the same thing when he writes: "But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us" (Ro 5:8).

The truth is

  1. we are sinners, estranged from God

  2. we are loved by God

  3. Christ died for us = was lifted up on a pole

  4. those who believe, have eternal life

  5. those who don't believe, have separated themselves from this life

LOVE & GIVING (v. 16)

The Greek word translated "love" is agapao (the verbal form of the noun agape). The word is not so much an emotional state as the doing of beneficial deeds for another. When Jesus commands us to love our enemies, it is a command to act kindly towards them, not necessarily a command to suddenly develop wonderful, warm, fuzzy feelings towards them. This meaning is illustrated in that this verse refers to God's actions on behalf of the world -- giving his son, with the result that believers may not perish but have an eternal relationship with God.

Although I have been able to catalogue all the verse in John with didomi = "give," I have done enough to know that God is a giving God. With many congregations looking at upcoming stewardship campaigns -- and even if they are not, I believe that people who believe in the Giving God, need to be giving people. Children are to be something like their parents.


Terms related to salvation/save are not use frequently in John. The Greek root sot- -- savior & salvation only at 4:22, 42; and the verb sozo at 3:17; 5:34; 10:9; 11:12; 12:27, 47.

The verb generally means "to rescue from something." Frequently one may be rescued from illness; thus leading to a secondary meaning "to make whole" or "to heal".

What is Jesus rescuing us from? One answer that is implied in v. 17 (and in 12:47) is the judgment. In these verses, the contrast is between being saved and being judged/condemned (by God?). I believe that as Christians, we have passed through the judgment. The daily forgiveness of our sins means that all our mistakes are "taken away" (a literal meaning of the common Greek word for "forgiveness".) If all our disobediences are "taken away," there will be nothing evil left in our lives on the day of judgment.

Another answer that is implied by 10:9 is that Jesus, as the gate, rescues us from (1) the need to find food! -- perhaps more generally "anxiety about life" and (2) from the thief (the devil? other evil people?) who steals, kills, and destroys. There is comfort to know that we have divine help for our needs and against our enemies.

A third answer suggested by my earlier comments on this text, is that we need to be rescued from ourselves. Are all humans self-destructive to some degree? Is that part of our original sinfulness? Are we doomed to continually make the wrong choices for ourselves? Perhaps, but whenever we do that, we look to the "human" on the cross and live -- not just for today, but for eternity.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901